Consumer Energy Report is now Energy Trends Insider -- Read More »

By Robert Rapier on Jul 23, 2012 with 7 responses

The Contribution of U.S. Oil Consumption to Global Carbon Emissions


Financial Dependence Can Cause Bias

Generally when I find myself having to clarify my position from a previous column, I find that I did not explain myself as well as I should have. Such is the case with last week’s column Environmentalism is a Profitable Business.

There were several ways in which that column was misunderstood, but I want to be clear that I was not arguing that people are drawn to environmentalism for the money. I believe that in most cases they are drawn to the cause because they genuinely care, but in some cases that has led to the creation of organizations that have done very well financially. Because these organizations often put out misleading information, and due to the fact that some peoples’ livelihoods have become tied into the success of these organizations, I questioned money’s role in the promotion of misinformation.

A friend suggested that sometimes organizations go “off the deep end” because they have large donors who are off the deep end and want their cause promoted. And that would be exactly what I am talking about; an example of money leading to misinformation.

Misinformation for the Greater Good?

Last week’s post discussed misinformation about fossil fuel subsidies. To recap, there was a recent “Twitter storm” in which the message was that fossil fuel companies are wallowing in subsidies of up to a trillion dollars a year. The truth of the matter is that nearly 90% of the subsidies cited were for fuel subsidies for poor people. So I questioned whether promoters of the “trillion dollar story” are unaware of this, or whether they are knowingly misleading people “for the greater good.” But my larger point was whether a problem can be solved if you don’t understand the nature of that problem.

Many environmental organizations focus their efforts on U.S. oil consumption because of its role in global carbon dioxide emissions. I suspect people overestimate that role. So what I want to do here is to quantify that role, because my impression is that they are focusing a disproportionate amount of time and energy on a tiny portion of the problem. (I also wanted to satisfy my own curiosity; the truth is that I didn’t know the answer when I started writing this post).

So the question I want to answer is this: Of the 70 PPM rise in the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration in the past 46 years, how much of that was due to U.S. oil consumption?

U.S. Oil Consumption & Carbon Emissions – Drilling Down Into the Numbers

While the U.S. does consume a lot of oil per capita — and to be clear I have advocated for policies to cut down on our oil consumption — Americans represent only 5% of the global population. Hence, while our impact may be disproportionate, in total it is a relatively small fraction of the total.

In Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions — Facts and Figures, I noted that over the past 46 years (since 1965), the global carbon dioxide concentration has increased by 70 parts per million (PPM). I calculated that cumulative U.S. emissions over that time frame were 255 billion tons of CO2, which would have contributed 18 PPM toward the 70 PPM rise. Certainly 5% of the global population contributing 26% of the total rise in carbon dioxide concentrations is a disproportionate impact.

However, this was the total for oil, coal, and natural gas. Cumulative oil consumption for the U.S. from 1965 through 2011 was 37 billion metric tons. I contacted BP to ensure that my calculations were consistent with theirs, and they indicated that they are assuming 3.07 metric tons of carbon dioxide released per metric ton of oil equivalent consumed.

In the past 46 years, the U.S. has consumed 37 billion metric tons of oil which would have contributed 114 billion metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Plugging back into our correlation between tons of CO2 and PPM of CO2 in the atmosphere (see footnote), we can see that U.S. consumption of oil in the past 46 years contributed 8 PPM of the 70 PPM rise in the atmospheric CO2 concentration.

On an annual basis, at current rates of consumption, U.S. oil use would be responsible for a 1 PPM increase in the global CO2 concentration every 5.5 years. Certainly, that’s a measurable contribution, but it pales in comparison to the other contributors. If we could cut oil consumption in half in the U.S. for the next 30 years, it would only make a 3 PPM difference. Global coal consumption — dominated by Asia Pacific with 69% of global demand in 2011 — emits enough CO2 to add more than 1 PPM to the global CO2 concentration every single year.

Conclusion: Fighting the Relatively Minor Problem

My point is that we have a small problem and a big problem. Fixing the small problem does not fix the big problem, and yet the resources of these organizations are primarily directed at the small problem. I certainly have not gotten press releases from environmental organizations discussing how they are fighting against rising emissions in China, but I am besieged by emails calling for more support in their fight against the Keystone XL Pipeline.

It’s as if a man goes to a doctor and is diagnosed with lung cancer and an ingrown toenail. The doctor throws all of his time and effort into fixing the ingrown toenail, while the man dies of cancer. Certainly the ingrown toenail may need treatment, but treating it is really irrelevant with respect to the larger problem. That’s not just my opinion — that’s what the numbers indicate. U.S. oil consumption is nearly irrelevant with respect to the big picture, and a lot of time and energy are being spent on a minor part of a much larger problem.

In my next column, I want to look at some of the specific claims around the Keystone XL pipeline and about Canadian oil sands to put those numbers in perspective.

Footnote: According to this analysis, the average amount of CO2 emissions that causes an atmospheric increase of 1 ppm is 14.138 billion metric tons of CO2. The U.S. contribution of 255 billion tons over the past 36 years would then contribute 255/14.138 = 18.1.

Note to readers: I am traveling over the next two weeks, and my Internet access may be spotty. So responses to comments and emails may be delayed.

Link to Original Article: The Contribution of U.S. Oil Consumption to Global Carbon Emissions

By Robert Rapier

  1. By Ed Reid on July 23, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    “Certainly 5% of the global population contributing 26% of the total rise in carbon dioxide concentrations is a disproportionate impact.”

    That 5% of global population also produces ~20% of global GDP.

  2. By Robert Rapier on July 25, 2012 at 2:06 am

    That 5% of global population also produces ~20% of global GDP.

    I usually forget to add that caveat, but whenever I do I also feel compelled to add the one that says come countries are far more efficient at producing GDP than we are. So we have room for improvement.


    • By CPBrown on August 1, 2012 at 10:33 am

      I also wondered about the efficiency of the oil use. Does a certain amount of oil burning always equal a certain amount of carbon emissions? We’re always hearing about the inefficient Chinese coal plants and the apparent environmental mess of the former Warsaw Pact countries. I know we do better, but did not know that some others were “far better” than we were. Also, GDP’s come from a variety of activity, including less energy intensive sectors – services, farming, etc. Pre- 1978 China had a surprisingly large GDP based mostly on a non-industrial, agrarian economy, but that included almost 1 billion people. Probably wasn’t using much oil at all, but efficient ?

      • By Robert Rapier on August 1, 2012 at 3:13 pm

        Does a certain amount of oil burning always equal a certain amount of carbon emissions?

        Different crudes have different carbon emissions, but in a pretty narrow range. But the range of GDP that can be produced for a given level of carbon emissions spans an order of magnitude.


  3. By ben on July 25, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Thank you for that caveat!   Efficiency of GDP production is a BIG point– not unlike EROEI calculations that bear on beggar thy neighbor debates.  Today’s US foreign policy may rest on the soundness of our national footing in advocating principles that actually square with our commercial practices.   Our ability to meet the competitive challenges of the Asian giants may ultimately turn on global perceptions of our tenacity.   We’ll need to do better than the recent past–though we are slowly beginning to make improvements–to prove the seriousness of our efforts to non-aligned nations who represent the  jury that really matters.  If “the jury is still out” on the pivotal question of responsible leadership, the principles/practices of  sustainability offer a relevant context for guaging socioeconomic responsibility.   Perhaps the neo-classical consensus of the past century-plus is beginning to give way to new requirements (Novus Ordo Seclorum)  and the relentless pressures of globalism.   This will not sit well with the ancien regime or it’s thoroughly entrenched defenders of the status-quo.   Yes, by all means, “let the games begin!”         


  4. By Frank Gallagher on July 29, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    If I follow your argument correctly, since our numbers are relatively small, our impact is small, therefor we have little obligation to take on the challenges of environmental issue.  Such an argument appears to lack any ethical foundation, especially when one considers that we have been setting the standards for development over the past six decades. 


  5. By Robert Rapier on July 29, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    If I follow your argument correctly…

    You do not. You made enormous leaps from my position. If you have read much of anything I have written, you will see me arguing passionately to move the U.S. in a more sustainable direction.

    My point is for people to understand the nature of the problem, and that the emissions are to a greater and greater extent beyond our control. But unless the problem is understood, there really is little chance of solving it. And currently the focus is totally misplaced. People are fighting a problem that will make little to no impact on the bigger problem, and they are largely ignoring the bigger problem.


Register or log in now to save your comments and get priority moderation!